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Hiking Yosemite With Kids, Part 2: Yosemite Falls

Posted Apr 26 2011 12:00am

If you were following Part 1 yesterday, you’ll recall that my wife and I had just guided our three kids on a hike to the top of Nevada Fall and back, a 7-mile round trip with about 2000’ of climbing, and an adventure which helped them fall in love with Yosemite the same way my wife and I each did on our first visits here.

We didn’t tell the kids this at the time, but the Mist Trail was our “building confidence” hike – because we knew that the challenge of Day 2 would be significantly greater.

Our objective for the day was Yosemite Falls, which at roughly 4 miles from our starting point at Yosemite Lodge was only slightly longer than the previous day’s outing, but has an additional 700’ of climbing, much of it over very irregular rocky terrain. (I've also profiled this hike in a previous photo tour from two years ago.) If there are any city folk reading this who want a frame of reference, the hike is roughly the equivalent of climbing up two Empire State Buildings – except that instead of having an enclosed stairwell and railing to hold onto, the path on the top third of the climb is covered in snow, frequently gets slippery, and is less than 1 foot wide. Hopefully that helps.

To their credit, even after we explained the goal of the day (we conveniently left out the Empire State Building part) none of the kids shrunk from the challenge – which is a good thing, because the trail demands full commitment right off the bat, as it starts with a series of more than 60 switchbacks that help you gain altitude in a hurry – approximately 1000’ in the first mile.

After a mile and a half or so, the trail levels out, just as the footing starts to get tricky. It’s a nice courtesy of the trail to introduce these challenges one at a time, to keep you from getting too discouraged once you hit the sections that are both steep and technical. You also enjoy* a nice little downhill portion before commencing the real difficult stretch of trail ahead.

(*"Enjoy" might be the wrong term, since you know you’ll have to make the elevation back up in the very near future. As my father-in-law put it, “I hate giving back elevation” – and as you might guess, he wasn’t thrilled with the brief downhill part.)

The good news is that just as the trail shifts to expert level, you have some killer views of Yosemite Falls, and get close enough to get saturated by the spray if you linger for too long.

And as you continue even higher, you get the “only one spot in Yosemite to see this” vantage point of having both Yosemite Falls and the face of Half Dome in your field of vision.

It was somewhere above 6000’ elevation that the snow progressively became more of a factor; at first it started as decorative accents on either side of the trail …

… before becoming enough of an impediment to make you alter your course, especially around switchbacks and turns …

… then completely obscuring the trail except for a narrow footpath …

… before ultimately blanketing everything in sight, which thankfully didn’t occur until just below the top of the climb. Incidentally, see that rock there? That’s one of the ones I sat on while taking a “sun break” to warm my toes up a bit, as I mentioned in this post about wearing Vibrams in the snow .

As for the kids, the snow seemed to energize them; approaching the last third of the climb, the girls started to drag just a bit, but as the snow got deeper and we got further and further into a winter landscape, they forgot that they were actually exercising and started goofing around in the snow. Either that, or the caffeinated CLIF Bloks my wife and I gave them about halfway up the hill were finally starting to kick in. (Seriously.)

Whatever the cause, they showed no signs of fatigue, throwing snowballs and making snowmen and generally having a blast …

… until my toes were warm enough to finish the outbound leg by heading toward the overlook area, where (fortunately for me) the granite was completely dry under the glare of direct sunlight.

The Yosemite Falls overlook is one of the coolest spots in the park, but this “pre-fall” section is as close as the majority of my family got to seeing it ...

... because the rest of the path to the overlook is a somewhat vertigo-inducing route down the face of the cliff …

… with these narrow stairs and this small handrail the only thing to keep you from plunging over the side.

My son was the only one who felt compelled to stand at the edge by himself. Actually, that’s not entirely true; my 7-year-old (remember, the one we deemed “most likely to tumble off a cliff or waterfall”) also went down with us, but I kept one hand on her at all times, and for some reason it didn’t seem like a good time to try playing around with my camera in the other hand. Call it a hunch.

We returned to the safer part of the overlook and enjoyed the views while having another lunch at the top of Yosemite – our second in two days, with one on each side of the valley. Not too shabby for a first family trip, I’d say.

I took this photo after lunch because it was such an oddity: my wife, who’s waaaaayy more paranoid than me when it comes to standing near steep dropoffs, and who has deferred two separate opportunities to overlook Yosemite Falls, randomly walked to the edge of the cliff and called our son over to point out the view of Yosemite Lodge in the distance far below. This also seems like a nice moment to point out that I don’t account for 100% of the crazy in our family – my wife’s good for at least a percent or two sometimes.

Once we had our fill of both food and the beautiful views, the return to the floor of the valley was one of those situations where the journey down takes almost as long as the way up. By midday, the paths of snow had turned slushy and slippery, and the combination of technical footing and steep descents dictated that we go fairly cautiously, especially in the company of little legs that had completed their second major day of climbing in a row. We didn’t have any serious problems, though …

… and before we knew it were back on the valley floor, looking back up at where we had just been. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of “did we really just climb to the top of that thing?” to instill a sense of accomplishment in the kids … and OK, in the adults as well.

In the final analysis, all of our kids performed wonderfully with both of our day hikes, and proved without a shadow of a doubt that our concern about their ability was somewhat unfounded. It’s worth pointing out that my wife and I wouldn’t describe any of our children as remarkable athletes; they’re just everyday kids who occasionally need some encouragement to be active, but generally enjoy goofing around outdoors and exploring the natural environment. Adventures like this seem like the kind of thing that should be commonplace with children, but are sadly becoming more of the exception in modern society.

In many ways, children might be seen as little microcosms of endurance athletes: if they’re motivated and determined to accomplish something, they’re capable of overcoming just about any perceived physical limitation that might stand in their way. And fortunately for my wife and me, the beauty of Yosemite was a perfect means of stimulating our kids’ ambition to push themselves further than normal in hopes of finding a significant physical and spiritual reward.

The really cool thing is that this effect works just as well on grown-ups as it does on kids – which is why I’m hopeful that this will be the first of many family outings into Yosemite.

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page

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